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St. Vincent’s Pleads Poverty to Evade Landmark Law

St. Vincent’s Pleads Poverty to Evade Landmark Law

New York Times 5/10/2008


In the contentious world of New York landmark preservation, it is not always hard to be a hardship case.

What qualifies as a hardship case — when landlords have taken their alms bowls in hand to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, claiming poverty as an excuse to demolish old buildings — is now central to the controversy over the plan of St. Vincent’s Hospital Manhattan to build a 329-foot-tall medical tower in the Greenwich Village Historic District.

On Tuesday — after the commission rebuffed the hospital’s $1.6 billion development proposal — Henry J. Amoroso, president of St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, the entity that includes the hospital, said it would file an application seeking hardship status.

He sought “the demolition of the O’Toole Building,” he said, referring to the distinctive white monument on Seventh Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets that the hospital owns.

When it grants hardship status, the commission accepts nonprofit landlords’ arguments that maintenance of buildings they own interferes with their ability — physical or financial — to carry out their charitable purpose.

Such requests are exceedingly rare. Over the last four decades, according to the commission, it has received only 17 hardship applications. The most recent one came 19 years ago, when the commission denied an application to demolish St. Paul and St. Andrew’s Church at 263 West 86th Street in Manhattan.

However, the commission says that since 1967 it has approved 12 of those applications.

“But it is hard to generalize, because all of these are individual cases,” said Kent Barwick, a former commission chairman who is president of the Municipal Art Society of New York.

“Over many years, the commission has shown a real diligence” in scrutinizing such applications, Mr. Barwick said. “And it has been responsive to legitimate examples of hardship.”

For example, in 1981 the owner of the former Mount Neboh Synagogue at 130 West 79th Street sought hardship status, and ultimately the commission approved its destruction to make way for a 19-story apartment building. “The applicant made a convincing case to the commission — and the effort to sell the synagogue, to preserve it, was unsuccessful,” said Mr. Barwick, who was the commission chairman at the time.

But in 1985, the commission twice denied the hardship application of St. Bartholomew’s Church at 109 East 50th Street to demolish its community house and build a 59-story office tower to finance church programs. The commission’s decision was upheld by a federal district court and appeals court.

Hospital officials have testified before the commission that a new building is essential to maintain modern health care for more than a million people who live in, work in or visit the area St. Vincent’s serves on the West Side.

In testimony, the hospital portrayed the O’Toole Building as worthy of demolition because it was outmoded, unsuitable to current needs and out of character with other buildings in the neighborhood. Designed by Albert C. Ledner in 1964 for the National Maritime Union of America, it was purchased by the hospital and renamed the Edward and Theresa O’Toole Medical Services Building.

Yet once derided in the neighborhood as the “overbite building” for its serrated setbacks, O’Toole is now admired by many preservationists for its unusual nautical motifs. “It is an exceptional building, with technical innovations — including the use of glass block — that are valuable to the history of architecture,” said Nina Rappaport, chairwoman of a preservationist group, Docomomo New York-Tristate, that has made saving the building a cause.

At the hearing — implying that they would vote to protect it — a majority of the commissioners praised the O’Toole Building, including Christopher Moore, who said he considered it “one of the most historic buildings in the entire complex.”

All of the 10 commissioners present at the hearing spoke in opposition to the St. Vincent’s plan to demolish nine buildings to permit the construction of the new hospital and a 265-foot-tall luxury condominium in conjunction with the Rudin Management Company.

But echoing some other commissioners, Robert B. Tierney, the commission’s chairman, mentioned the possible removal “of some of the buildings,” adding that the commissioners’ rejection “doesn’t mean that new construction can’t be woven into the historic fabric” of the hospital structures on the east side of Seventh Avenue.

Shelly S. Friedman, a lawyer advising the hospital, said the hardship application is expected to be filed within the next 10 days, adding that “there are plenty of precedents for our application.”

Many of the commissioners rejected the height and bulk of both the proposed $800 million hospital building and the $800 million condominium tower. After studying the commissioners’ comments, “we are committed to try to come up with an alternative solution,” said the developer William C. Rudin, “and we will be back very soon with some ideas.”

In an interview, Mr. Tierney said that if another plan was submitted, “the changes would be of such importance that we would require that it go through the community board.”

Brad Hoylman, chairman of Community Board 2, said that “depending on how quickly they revise their plans, I can envision us hearing a new proposal as early as next month.” The board voted overwhelmingly in March to oppose the original two-tower plan; it exerts no veto power but can influence city agencies and elected officials.

“We do believe there is a way to build a modern hospital, and yet preserve the integrity of the historic district,” he added. “But that solution has not been presented to us.”

Ultimately any St. Vincent’s plan would need approval not only from Landmarks but also from the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

“We would welcome a new proposal,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which testified against the St. Vincent’s proposal. “But they would have to show why the buildings they have now are not suited for adaptive reuse. Institutions have to open their books and prove their case.”

The hospital, she added, “will need to offer a lot of facts and figures.”